Fighting Sawflies

Montana wheat farmer Jerry McRae windrows to manage sawfly damage.


Sawflies. They’ve stolen profits from farmers across the North American prairies, and in Central Montana on Jerry McRae’s family farm they are as bad as anywhere. If you’re not familiar with what the little scourges can do, imagine a perfectly ripened field of wheat lying flat in the field just as if someone had gone through it with a sickle. According to the website just one downed wheat head per square foot adds up to a bushel in losses every acre. Multiply that by the approximately 12,000 acres (4856 hectares) of wheat that the McRae family harvests every year, and you get a sense of what damage the pests can do.

“You see sawflies start flitting around in June,” says McRae from his farm near the town of Dutton in Montana’s foothills. “They lay their eggs in the stem of the wheat and the larvae prepare to overwinter in the lower stem by sawing the upper stem away, weakening the stem. In a field that’s been damaged you can grab an armful and it’s just like it’s been swathed. Perfectly nice cuts – it’s a terrible thing.”

Wheat stems that have received sawfly damage will fall with the slightest wind, resulting in downed or lodged crop. That, of course, can cause significant headaches when combining so McRae chooses to swath his wheat first before the sawfly damage becomes too great.

“We usually start swathing one week before we start cutting – typically the last week of July but sometimes the third week. When we first start our crop is usually all standing, but by end of the three week period that it takes to get it all done we’ve never finished where some of the crop is not a wreck due to some wind.” McRae says that they had particularly bad luck with weather this year, resulting in an uglier harvest than normal.

“This year we swathed maybe two or three days before a big thunderstorm, with hail, hit the crop. You always know you’re going to get at least one thunderstorm in the three week period, but this year it was inopportune that it happened so early in the harvest. That’s Montana. Its tough weather; Glacier Park type weather.”

For swathing the McRae family currently owns four MacDon M155 Windrowers mounted with 40' (12.2 m) D65 Draper Headers. He says that he started running MacDon swathers several years ago, initially with the M100, and routinely trades in for newer ones every year.

“We put 280 hours on our swathers, more or less, and then trade them in right after harvest. It’s a good deal that our dealer has worked out for us. And we definitely like our MacDons. The swathers are a given because nothing ever happens to them.”

But the real selling point of a MacDon windrower says McRae is its draper header, not just for him but other farmers in the area.

“Those of us that have our own combines typically swath, because we know the value of not sending rocks through the combine. And, for most producers around here, MacDon is the header of choice. In fact, there are not many of the competitive headers left; MacDon has aced them out.”

He says that header durability is key given the tough, rocky harvesting conditions they face, and that is why MacDon is the choice of so many farmers he knows.

“You know, this is tough country. There’s some abuse that goes on, not on purpose, but because you are moving as quickly as you possibly can at all times to stay ahead of the weather. The reel is scraping the ground so you are raking gravel a lot of the time, especially when you bounce over a rock.”

McRae says that sawflies make an already tough job worse because it forces them to run the header as low as possible to recover as much wheat as possible.

“Even in normal operation, that thing has to just about touch the ground to get what’s there. Typically we’re just skimming the ground, no more than an inch off it. The reel is scraping rocks, gravel and anything else right on to the sickle.”

“As far as sickles and guards we don’t do those headers any good by the time we’re done with them, that’s for sure. We put over 1,200 sections in during operation this year. That’s 300 sickle sections per swather. Most of that damage occurred during the last half of the harvest when the crop was down because of the weather.”

Still, despite all the abuse, McRae says that windrowing remains the way to go as it saves his combines from taking similar abuse trying to pick-up sawfly damaged crop. One thing he does appreciate is the significantly higher productivity of today’s equipment such as his MacDon windrowers with 40' (12.2 m) draper headers.

“Harvest on this many acres 20 years ago would have taken two months and five to 10 combines. No way those combines would have eaten a 40' (12.2 m) swath. Swathers back then were 20' (6.1 m). The average guy now, using custom cutters, can finish harvest in a week to 10 days. We harvest 80% of our crop with our own combines so our harvest normally lasts around 21 days.”

“The bigger equipment lets us do more land with far fewer people. That’s important because its getting harder and harder to find good help. The only way you can own three combines is to have lots of acres, so we keep looking to expand. It’s a vicious cycle just like any other business.”

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